StrategyJune 5, 2013

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Bottom of the 9th: Interim NL Closers

By R.J. White

Take a look at the guys who are currently closing for NL teams. About half of them aren’t the relievers fantasy owners drafted in March looking for saves. Heck, in some cases some of the guys in this current crop of closers weren’t even on their teams in March. It makes for an ever-changing dynamic in fantasy leagues, one that causes many owners to live by the adage, “Don’t pay for saves.” Today, I’ll rank 15 interim and potential interim closers in the National League by order of “rosterability” in standard 5×5 roto leagues at this moment. Feel free to disagree with my rankings in the comments.

1. ARI Heath Bell

Regular closer J.J. Putz likely has more time out than any other injured closer who we can actually expect (i.e., not Jason Motte), which makes Heath Bell the best bet for saves in our list. While Bell has been far too hittable this season, he’s done a fine job in the ninth inning for the Diamondbacks, picking up 10 saves while posting a 27:5 K:BB ratio in 22.2 innings. If Bell were to get hurt or melt down, David Hernandez would take his spot, but with Putz’s return possibly weeks away instead of months — he hopes to throw off flat ground next week, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come back around the All-Star break — Hernandez isn’t a great option for save chasers at this point.

2. LAD Kenley Jansen

Brandon League is still the closer in L.A., but he could be the least talented guy filling the closing role in the National League, and it seems inevitable that Kenley Jansen will take over at some point. Jansen owns a 40:6 K:BB ratio in 28.2 innings and is capable of being a Craig Kimbrel-type of fantasy option should the Dodgers use him in the ninth inning. I know the team handed a lot of money to League this offseason, but think about it: if the Dodgers could sign Craig Kimbrel off the free-agent market for that money right now, would they do so? Absolutely. At this point, the money’s committed either way, and it’s clearly better to hide League’s low strikeout rate and high ERA in the middle innings where he can pitch in lower leverage situations.

3. SD Luke Gregerson

Luke Gregerson rates as my third-best option on this list thanks to his status as a current closer, the injury history of Huston Street and his great numbers this season. I’ve personally owned him for most of the year in one league, enjoying quality numbers even before the saves started coming. He may only close for two weeks, but who knows how long Huston Street will be out? He’s been a regular on the DL over the last few years. Gregerson of course pitches in a beneficial home park as well.

4. COL Rex Brothers

Some prefer Rex Brothers to Gregerson, thinking that he has a better chance to stick as the closer even when the currently injured guy returns. While Brothers has been fantastic on a performance level, I think his status as the team’s only impact left-hander would doom him to a setup guy who occasionally picks up saves if the Rockies had to replace Rafael Betancourt for a few months instead of a few weeks. He’s still the last guy on our list who needs to be owned in all leagues, though the next few should definitely find a home in 12-team leagues as well.

5. PIT Mark Melancon

Mark Melancon has been electric as the Pirates’ setup man this year, posting a 1.19 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 32:4 K:BB ratio in 30.1 innings. He’s not going to take over the closing gig any time soon for performance reason — Jason Grilli has been the best closer in either league this season. But Melancon is worth owning for the ratios and strikeouts even though he’ll only get occasional saves for the time being. However, if the injury bug happens to strike Grilli, Melancon could be a top-10 option in mixed leagues as a closer.

6. MIL Francisco Rodriguez

Francisco Rodriguez is currently the closer of the Brewers, but it Jim Henderson could return to the team this weekend, and if he does, that leaves K-Rod with only a save or two to potentially pick up before going back to a setup role. Henderson has been good enough this year to immediately reclaim the closing job, so Rodriguez is worth dropping to pick up any of the guys above him (and maybe a few of the guys below, depending on your format).

7. STL Trevor Rosenthal

Edward Mujica has done a great job as the team’s closer, and it was likely partially thanks to Trevor Rosenthal’s struggles earlier in the year that Mujica even had the opportunity to run away with the ninth-inning role. Rosenthal has settled down nicely since that early stretch in the season and now owns a 1.86 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 42:6 K:BB ratio in 29 innings, dominant numbers for a reliever. Like Melancon, Rosenthal is worth owning for the ratios and strikeouts alone, even if the saves don’t come this year. He’s also an intriguing commodity in dynasty leagues, setting himself up as a potentially elite closer down the road if the Cardinals keep him in the bullpen.

8. MIA Mike Dunn

This is a tier break in the rankings, as we move from dealing with guys currently getting saves and elite setup men to guys who are sitting in potentially volatile bullpens. The Marlins have managed just six saves this year as a team and none since May 19. That last save went to Mike Dunn, a lefty who may currently be the co-closer with Steve Cishek, who hasn’t recorded a save since May 10. Cishek had a save opportunity Tuesday in the 10th inning but blew it. The Marlins don’t receive a lot of save opportunities in general, winning just five games since Cishek had his last save. That and manager Mike Redmond’s assertion that “everybody” would be used to close limits the saves owners can find in Miami. I would bank on Dunn leading the current relievers in saves moving forward.

9. CHC James Russell

Kevin Gregg has been surprisingly effective this season, giving up just one earned run in 15.1 innings and recording six saves. But are 15.1 innings of work really enough for Gregg to earn our trust? If the reckoning comes at some point, the Cubs seem unwilling to turn back to Carlos Marmol, who has struggled in June after actually performing well for a stretch. That could leave Russell as the next closer up, even as the team’s only effective option for a lefty setup role. At the very least, Russell can be expected to co-close if Gregg goes through a rough stretch. Russell has posted a 1.23 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 21:6 K:BB ratio this year, giving him value even while not getting saves.

10. ATL Jordan Walden

We now move on to the guys that have no shot of unseating current closers on their teams but can still be effective in fantasy leagues as sources of ratio and strikeout help as well as potential trade candidates for other major-league teams that may want to fill a hole in the ninth inning. Jordan Walden is a young guy with closing experience who the Braves picked up from the Angels this offseason. I felt at the time that the Braves may look to flip Walden to fill a hole somewhere or pick up a solid prospect once they rebuilt his value. He has complied by posting a 20:3 K:BB ratio in 17 innings. Injuries have hit the Atlanta bullpen hard, but the two key injuries came to their lefty combination of Johnny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. Once Cristhian Martinez gets healthy, Atlanta can feel a little better about trading Walden if they wish.

11. WAS Tyler Clippard

Tyler Clippard is in the midst of another fine season, posting a 3.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 27:11 K:BB ratio in 24 innings this year. It’s always possible Drew Storen could close in the event of a Rafael Soriano injury, but Clippard has been the most effective pitcher of the two. Clippard’s high strikeout rate and experience closing in 2012 could make him a prime trade target for closer-needy teams as well, though as a contender the Nationals may be in no hurry to deal him.

12. NYM Brandon Lyon
13. CIN Jon Broxton
14. PHI Mike Adams
15. SF Jeremy Affeldt

Throw these four guys together in a group, as they are only worth owning if injuries strike down the closers above them on the depth chart. Brandon Lyon has actually posted solid statistics this season, which is why he gets the top spot. He also has past experience closing, which can be important to some teams who may come calling in trade talks. I’m sure the Reds would love to find a taker for Jon Broxton’s contract, but he needs to perform better to garner any interest at all. Mike Adams would likely close if the Phillies lost Jonathan Papelbon, but Adams hasn’t been all that good since returning from the DL. Jeremy Affeldt is a soft second for saves in San Francisco right now, but Bruce Bochy has shown a willingness in the past to employ a closer-by-committee approach.

R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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